Today, March 21st, is Kristy Roberts’s birthday. Kristy is the most senior payroll specialist at Xenium HR. She’s been with The Stoller Group since 1990, and she was Xenium’s very first payroll specialist when we split off from Express Employment Professionals as our own company in 2000. Over Roberts’s lengthy career, a lot has changed in the payroll world—advances in technology, for instance, have simplified some issues and introduced new ones—but many things, like the urgency built into the job, and the importance of customer service, have stayed the same.
Roberts’s first job, right out of high school, was on the sales floor at TJ Maxx. But she’d always wanted to be a secretary, so she was also studying business at a community college in Vancouver. Along with her business classes, she took typing, 10-key, and shorthand. (“Is that even a thing anymore?” she joked.)
Her professors thought she needed to gain office experience. Through the college’s Work Co-op Program, she got a job at a waste management company in the accounts receivable department, while maintaining her job at TJ Maxx and her full time studies.
After her first year in community college, she moved back to California to be closer to her family. But after that summer spent living with her aunt, she got homesick for the Northwest and realized where “home” truly was.
So in 1990, at the age of 20, she moved back to Vancouver but didn’t return to school. She hadn’t quite figured out what she wanted to do yet. Eventually, someone recommended she check out Express Employment Professionals, a temp agency that’s part of The Stoller Group, like Xenium. “’They’ll help you find something right away,’” she remembered the person telling her.
Sure enough, she ended up with a job immediately—but not with a client. Instead, she was hired as a receptionist at Express’s Vancouver office.
Each office did the payroll for their own temporary employees, and the job was built into the receptionist position. Temps dropped off their physical timecards at Express at the end of every weekly pay period. It was then Roberts’s job to audit timecards and process them for payment, and whenever she found mistakes, she had to correct them by hand.
After a year as a receptionist at Express, she was moved to the corporate headquarters, in downtown Portland at the time, to be a switchboard operator. But because of her background in payroll at the Vancouver office, she was given some work with the payroll team, too. A year later, she became the payroll team leader for Express’s local east region, processing payroll for temps for five of Express’s Portland area offices. She even said she used to stand on the corner of 6th and Morrison, waiting for office managers to drive by and pick up their checks. “Thank goodness for Xenium’s courier services today!” she said.
“I feel like the company catered to my skill levels, which is a good thing, right?” she said.
While in that role, the company switched back to having each office do their own payroll for their temps, so she started traveling to the east region offices to train their HR staff on payroll processes. Eventually, she became the payroll team leader for 17 Express offices, training payroll specialists for each office. She managed a six person payroll team for 11 local offices and six out of state offices that fell under the ownership of co-founder, Bill Stoller. At the time, she was also in charge of The Stoller Group’s internal payroll. She remained in that role until 2000, when Xenium branched into its own corporation under The Stoller Group, with a vision of providing human resources, payroll, and benefits services to small businesses across the Pacific Northwest.
“I was the first and only payroll person at Xenium,” she said. She helped around 20 clients at the beginning, including some she still works with today. Out of approximately 200 Xenium clients, Kristy now processes payroll for 15 of the largest. She’s been with Xenium as a payroll specialist ever since.
Though there are now more options for working with Xenium, what hasn’t changed much since 2000, she said, is the customized, client-based approach and the focus on customer service. The job requires juggling specific needs that vary depending on the client; different clients require different reports to be run after processing payroll, for example. Day-to-day, though, most of her interactions are with her client contacts and her clients’ employees, answering questions about pay, taxes, benefits, deductions, and employer contributions.
While technology has certainly simplified the payroll process in a lot of ways, it hasn’t eliminated every complication. Managers can now enter timesheets electronically, but at larger companies where multiple managers are entering time, every pay period can be a waiting (and chasing) game. “I can tell which locations haven’t been keyed yet, so then I can ping the manager and remind them of their deadline, ‘Do you have an ETA on when you may be submitting your payroll?’”
She had to find and correct mistakes by hand before, but the software now helps considerably. “It will calculate and provide warnings. Warnings can be, ‘Hey, this person is using more PTO than they have.’ Or, ‘This person is not being paid.’ With those warnings, I can go to the client and ask, ‘Is it okay that they’re taking more PTO? Is this other person not working anymore? Maybe they left, and you forgot to tell us.’ Most of the time in that last case, they just forgot to enter the hours, so it’s good that we’re notified and we’re asking.”
But the change in software capabilities has also brought about some misconceptions about the work involved in payroll. “I think the biggest misconception is that we’re just pushing buttons. Like, ‘We submitted our time, just push the button and print the checks!’ But there’s a whole lot that goes into it.” Any changes in staffing, like new hires or people departing, along with changes to taxes or benefits, mean a lot of time spent auditing every change or addition submitted to make sure every payment is accurate and filed to that client’s specifications.
As far as the future of payroll, she imagines a fully paperless world, where all payments are direct deposit. But she doesn’t anticipate payroll ever going fully automated. “We’ll always need somebody to do payroll,” she said. Software makes it easier and maybe someday clients will have the option to print checks themselves, but she suspects someone will always need to shuffle the process along, to be available to answer questions and solve mistakes quickly.
“I saw a t-shirt the other day that said, ‘Being a payroll specialist is easy. It’s like riding a bike except the bike is on fire and you’re on fire.’ But it’s amazing that that’s also what motivates us, right? Everything is on fire. Everything is to be done right now. But that’s also where my value comes in. I will get it done. I’ve got the urgency. I’ve got it in my blood.”